Draconian speed limits are hiding a much deeper global crisis over car ownership, says Joseph Kelly

It’s rapidly becoming one of the most unpopular and controversial pieces of government legislation in decades, with more than 373,000 people (more than 10% of the Welsh population) already signed up to a protest petition that may well have doubled in size by the time you read this.

The introduction of the new default 20mph speed limit across Wales is the first of its kind in the UK and, just a week in, I have to say it really needs to be experienced to be understood.

In fact understood is a bit of a misnomer – as the new 20mph limit applies to all roads currently marked up at 30mph, except where local councils have obtained an exemption to keep them at 30mph. Where there is no signage the road may still be 30mph but you’re best to assume 20mph, and in border areas such where I live the speed limit may vary invisibly between 20mph and 30mph as the road weaves it way back and forth across the English border.

On the face of it, the change seems like a no-brainer – the project may be costing Wales £32million but it’s claimed (and I emphasise claimed – there’s no evidence) that it will save nine lives a year and reduce NHS costs by £92million a year. Given that people in Wales rely heavily on personal vehicles for work and communications, and the economy is propped by the annual influx of car-bound tourists, the scheme’s critics warn that that it will cost the Welsh economy a catastrophic £4.54billion over the next 30 years.

Where you stand on the role of vehicular dependency in modern society depends a lot on how much you as an individual rely on your car for social and economic mobility, set against your degree of nervousness about climate quality decline and the increasingly uncertain future of our fragile planet.

Already in South Wales this morning we’ve seen signatures on a petition turn into direct action as protestors have mimicked the work of the shady ‘Blade Runners’ group who’ve been systematically disabling London’s controversial Ulez pollution cameras. Across Wales this morning drivers have awoken to find many 20mph signs defaced or painted over, and in some instances the newly placed 20mph stickers have been removed to reveal the old 30mph underneath.

The Welsh move is nothing new, low urban speed limits exist in many other European countries and Ireland (being in the Eurozone) is about to consider a 20km an hour urban default speed limit. As someone pretty used to driving around a hectic Dublin and its suburbs I can only imagine what chaos might ensue when drivers have to do it all at 18.5mph!

Closer to home in north Wales, the first week of driving at 20mph hasn’t been an easy experience. Even the very modest internal combustion engine I own simply isn’t built and geared to operate at such low torque, and the margin between speeding and stalling is now a perilous hairsbreadth. The only consolation is that you’re very unlikely to get shunted because the drivers behind and in front of you are also crawling in fits and starts. The whole urban driving experience has become like a bad trolley queue at the supermarket.

Of course the promise from the UK government is that just as soon as we all can afford our expensive new electric car replacements, all this nasty oppression of the motorist will somehow transform into a bright, glorious clean new era of fresh air and joyous travel. The battery-driven motoring revolution is already being advertised with an exuberance similar to those idyllic early 20th century ‘motoring as the embodiment of freedom’ adverts.

Weaning the public off its reliance on the motor car after its benefits have been avidly promoted for decades is not going to be an easy task, especially as there has been little enthusiasm for creating alternative transport infrastructures.

Many of us are old enough to remember the decimation of our railway system under the Beeching axe, but few of us will recall that Dr Beeching’s cuts presumed that these uneconomic railway lines would be replaced with ultra-efficient bus services. The government took Beeching’s advice on the cuts but ignored his advice on the alternatives, with catastrophic results for so many communities.

One can’t help feeling that a similar strategy is being employed over the motor car problem, as this week Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reneged on his government’s promise to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 – pushing this back to 2035 and diluting a number of other eco-promises aimed at making the UK government net zero on emissions by 2050. It’s pretty clear now that the UK will still be adding destructive greenhouse gases into the global environment well into the second half of this century.

For car makers, such policy uncertainty and ‘flip-flopping’ is highly damaging and disruptive, not least because it makes it impossible to anticipate how many new battery-driven vehicles to produce, and puts in jeopardy high complex raw materials transactions – which mostly have been made with much poorer and far less economically and politically stable countries.

By now we all know that the growth in electric car sales is great news for the developed world’s fight against climate change, but the mining of the highly toxic and damaging minerals used in their batteries poses serious risks for the environment, and is disastrous for the developing countries being drawn into the industry.

Lithium is the critical material in the manufacture of large car batteries, and more than half of the world’s lithium resources lies beneath the salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile – one of the world’s driest regions. It requires almost two million tons of fresh water to clean the brine off one ton of lithium, and it’s estimated that already one third of Bolivia’s precious fresh water supplies are being diverted to service the lithium industry. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, lithium consumes 65% of the local fresh water, causing groundwater depletion, soil contamination and other forms of environmental degradation, forcing local communities to abandon ancestral settlements.

Another key ingredient of car battery manufacture is cobalt. Nearly 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where UNICEF claims some 40,000 children are being forced to work in unbelievably dangerous and polluted conditions mining the soils that not only contain cobalt, but other highly poisonous chemicals.

And there’s another problem at the opposite end of this highly exploitative process. With all this talk of upgrading to shiny, clean, modern new electric cars in a world full of limitless recharging points and infinite electricity, have you ever wondered where the dirty old cars are going to die? It might be reasonable to assume that they’re cleverly and carefully recycled? Not according to the World Economic Forum, which estimates that the ultimate destination for 40% of the world’s used light-duty vehicles is Africa, with another sizeable chunk ending up in Central Asia. Half of these cars don’t meet the fuel economy, exhaust emissions, and safety standards imposed by their original home countries today and pose immense health threats in the densely populated areas they invariably end up in.

For years the West has also been refusing to regulate and reduce it household waste, instead exporting it to developing countries to deal with and it. Now seems that the drive towards clean air and energy in the west is being bought at an equally heavy price to more vulnerable nations.

It’s a cycle of benefit and exploitation that has been unchanged and unchallenged since the days of the dreadful ‘red rubber’ exploitations in the Congo, or the grain robberies in Ireland and it’s a mentality that’s unlikely to change whilst some nations and their citizens continue to believe that they have a right to thrive at the expense of others.

At the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development this week, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, spoke of the need to “shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path.”

The Liverpool-based archbishop warned against a throwaway culture in which “persons are no longer seen as a paramount value” and he urged UN member states to work together toward a future in which the inherent dignity of every person is respected, the needs of the poor and those in vulnerable situations are met, and a harmonious relationship with the environment is restored.

This can only be achieved “through a renewed sense of global co-responsibility,” said Archbishop Gallagher.

The conviction that any one group of people can thrive at the expense of another is perhaps the most unsustainable of all economic policies in the modern, heavily inter-connected world that we live in. Until we change that fundamental fallacy, it’s all but meaningless to claim that we are in any way building a better world for those that will come after us, however much we tinker with national speed limits and urban emission control mechanisms.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian